On the River

By the time I was in junior high school, Fair Oaks had become a rootless sea of fences, lawns, cars and asphalt. We had all isolated ourselves into to thousands of tiny kingdoms each one with the illusion of self-reliance. Or that is the way it seemed looking back in time. It was a place designed with raising kids in mind but in practice it felt enervating, a flattened kind of life. It showed a desire to view only one small part of human nature and leave out so much of those parts which frightened us. Those people who stood on the street carrying on conversations with themselves, or the ones dressed in filthy clothes passed out drunk, or the live nude shows, the drug dealers and the prostitutes plying their trade. Our parents did not want their kids to be near these things. Maybe this is why drinking, drugs and living dangerously was so in vogue in our youthful minds. It was a way of bringing dimension to an otherwise dimensionless life.

The teenage years were hard on me. In seventh grade I went to Andrew Carnegie Jr. High School. I took “Zero Period”, which meant I arrived and left nearly an hour earlier than most kids. I’m not sure why I did it, most kids did it because they had paper routes or something like that. I think I just disliked school so much that getting out a hour early seemed like having less school. I remember going to bed at 8:00 those days. In the winter, school started while it was still dark and I rode my bike about three or four miles every morning in the dark with a little generator light on my wheel. This was the good part. The kids were the worst part.

There seems to be a point in time as kids grow up, when the constructive playful community, like the one I belonged to in elementary school, turns into a an aggregation of competitive and aggressive individuals. Maybe it has something to do with budding sexuality or maybe it has something do to with kids trying to establish their own adulthood, they go a little overboard. But throwing hundreds of kids, who are just entering puberty, together with a minimum of adult supervision is bound to bring on a “Lord of the Flies” environment.

In the early morning there were always one or two kids checking the locks on all the lockers, hoping to find one with a faulty lock. Faulty locks were pretty common. When they found one, the young vandals would riffle through all the contents of the locker, looking for something they wanted and throwing the rest on the ground. Occasionally they would light one on fire, requiring a visit of a fire engine. The aggressive boys were always finding boys who they thought weren’t aggressive enough and picking on them. Calling them “fagots” or “pussies” or “fairies” or “queer” and maybe pushing them around a little. I never recall being called a fagot but I was definitely on the borderline. Out of a student body of several hundred kids I received the “Outstanding Citizenship Award”, which the adults running the school thought was a good thing. But to the kids it was really a bad thing. My friend Tim Sutherland received the “Academic Achievement Award”, which meant he must have received all A’s, because I received all A’s and just one A minus. Teachers never gave an A+ in those days.

Often, the Zero Period teacher didn’t show up for PE and us kids were left to our own devices. One dark morning I remember a group of boys ganging up on my friend Chuckie from elementary school and calling him a fagot and a queer, they didn’t physically hurt him but it was an ugly experience. Many years later, Chuckie, got in touch with me and I went over to his thin walled apartment by the Sunrise Mall to visit him. He told me that he was hurt I had left that school after one year, leaving behind him and our other small group of friends from elementary school. It was something I had felt badly about myself. I don’t remember what else we talked about but I remember thinking as an adult, Chuckie probably was gay, not that we mentioned it at all. And I think it made me feel even worse about abandoning him there at that school. My other friends could cope well enough without me but I think Chuckie had a much harder time of it and needed a familiar friend to hang out with at school.

That school, it had few redeeming qualities as far as I was concerned. The memory that bothered me the most (outside of the kid who would lean against my locker talking to girls after the bell rang, so I couldn’t open it.) was our PE teacher. The year before, in the sixth grade we had something called the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. It was a series of physical tasks, such as running a mile in six minutes, doing 10 pull ups and a few other things like that. I won that Award in the sixth grade and I practiced and worked for it. I may have been the only boy in my class who won it, I don’t remember for certain, but it was difficult. Our sixth grade teacher Mr. Nelson went by the rules and carefully timed and counted for all the tasks we completed. I prepared and practiced for the test in the seventh grade also, but when it came to doing them, the PE teacher was mostly a no show. Our class went ahead and did them anyway but the kids were cheating and not recording things correctly. I know for a fact I was the only kid who did the running in time because that was the one thing our teacher supervised. When it came time for giving out the awards I didn’t get one, the teacher just decided to hand them out to four or five boys he palled around with. The kind of boys that were good at lifting weights and playing football. I never felt the same about awards in general, after that experience.

The following year, my mother found the Waldorf School as an escape from the daily trauma I experienced at Andrew Carnegie. I didn’t even know, she knew how bad it was there, but parents tend to pick up on things even if kids don’t complain, which I never did. I stayed in the private school with a very small class size (there were 18 in our graduating class) because I liked the informal feel of it. But also because I was becoming so socially withdrawn I felt safer there.

It was located on the banks of the American River. A beautiful setting among the tall Blue Oaks, on the old flood plain. I remember from my first day there (a visit while I was still going to Carnegie), the strange feel of the place. The kids seemed like a mishmash of personalities, very much unrestrained by the ever powerful status quo of the public school. And without the mean-spiritedness of the Carnegie experience. Though there were those in my class I never liked much and I never made any real friendships that first year.

Today, I might be diagnosed as having some mild form of Autism, but more likely just some kind of social anxiety disorder. Our society is now more comfortable with labels such as these. A label like that really could have helped me, it would have given me something to wrap my thoughts around. Instead of just this vague feeling of being a loser in the social arena. It wasn’t that I was a loser socially it was simply that I was a beginner, while most other kids were far ahead of me in that realm. But I didn’t know that at the time.

Mrs. Kane, possessed the the dynamic energy which drove the school. A short rounded woman with a well projected speaking voice and amazing aura of confidence. She was a woman who must have been born into the role of starting and directing a small school. Beyond Mrs. Kane the rest of the teachers seemed committed, but not quite up to the task, at least during my first year at Waldorf. I gradually came to know the students in my class well enough; there was Marilyn, and Fran, inseparable buddies. There was Todd, and Joel. Kevin was a kind of rebellious ringleader and Pat, was his sidekick. Joel was more prone to monotone snide but very clever remarks. Jim had a male intensity I very much disliked. Dan was more of a quirky kid who seemed to read Doc Savage books continuously and talk about TV shows. Paul was probably my favorite of the boys, very studious and positive about school. Mike was a musician who fit the type, frizzy hair and thin nonathletic build. Matt was a giant for his age, already as tall as many adults, but his maturity level seemed to be behind everyone else’s. Andrea was the daughter of Mrs Kane, very good academically but also very adept at fitting in socially. Fitting in socially at that age and in that class meant being able to express a certain amount of cynicism. Andrea’s cynicism was a positive kind of cynicism, not harsh enough to be truly cutting. Anne was also very good academically, with a very naive streak. Like myself she was unable to pretend to hold this education stuff in complete contempt, because we already know everything we need to know anyway. Louise and Louisa were two very different souls. Louisa was short and stout with a deep voice, I think of those butch lesbians I see occasionally when I think of Louisa. In that time and at that age most of us knew little about our own sexuality and nothing of the sexuality of others. Louise was a disappearing soul, similar in many ways to myself, wanting nothing more than to fade into the background and go unnoticed. Amy was a tough talking horse riding girl who talked frankly about sex and drugs, like she was some 20-year-old who had seen it all and was somehow dropped into this small class of boring suburbanites. Of course she was considered “Cool”, a high compliment in those days, when the word had some real power to it. There were two or three other kids who I can’t recall well; but this along with our Patton-loving, beer drinking teacher Mr. Schimdt, was our cast of characters.

The school’s curriculum was based on the early century German philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Goethe was also held in high esteem. That Mr. Schimdt could somehow be a bridge between the esoteric, three-fold world of Steiner and the addled world of young suburban kids yearning to experience sex, drugs and alcohol seemed preposterous. He was very much like some of the junior high teachers I had experienced at Carnegie, only more accessible and less frazzled by the constantly changing flow of kids. He joked with the kids, telling stories and using anger as a tool to maintain attention in a rowdy classroom. But there was a much more relaxed atmosphere surrounding his classroom and the school in general. There wasn’t the ever-present “churn” of moving kids from one classroom to another and one teacher to another that I experienced at Carnegie and the feeling of being alone inside of a machine that went along with it.

For lunch we would all sit in the same classroom that we learned in and ate our bag lunches together. Mr Schmidt, sitting behind his desk at the front of the room sometimes using his bag as a napkin. He would sometimes tell stories and joke around during lunchtime. As a Waldorf teacher he must have been steeped in the Anthroposophic mind-set at some point. But I never saw any evidence of it. He did speak German, the mother language of the Waldorf education.

We were all supposed to learn how to play the recorder. On my first visit to the recorder class, Pat. and Kevin took me aside to tell me that Mrs Preston; the music teacher had high blood pressure, so it was important to do something that tested her blood pressure. I soon witnessed what they meant, when they had her face flushed red with anger. I however did not follow their lead, though I had only a little interest in learning to play the recorder. I usually sat politely but never practiced.

Another unusual class they gave at Waldorf was the Eurythmy class. The Eurythmy teacher had the class stand in a circle as we made the vowels sounds “AAAAA EEEE IIII OOO UUU”. We were supposed to make different shapes with our arms and our bodies as we made these sounds. There was also a rod which we held behind our necks, then we dropped it and tried to catch it again behind our backs. Apparently, Eurthmy is a discipline just as ballet or yoga, which was intended as part of the education of the whole person. However it seemed so incongruent with the underlying “coolness” of our class. It did have the redeeming feature that it was usually taught by a young, attractive woman which kept the boys in the class quiet for the most part.

Then there was the Biodynamic Gardens and the gardening teacher: Mr. Kahocevic. Our drama teacher Keith Jeffferson also helped Mr. Kahocevic in the gardens. Mr Kahocevic was a short dark-haired man from rural Russia. He was a very pleasant and good natured. He was unfazed by the negativity of eighth graders. He was also steeped in mysterious ancient European traditions. There was the type of food he ate: solid bread with a slightly sour taste, layered with a piece of some type of goat cheese, along with a drink of fermented raw milk. Then there was his knowledge of Bio-dynamic gardens with its tinctures of fermented nettle juice sprinkled on plants at certain moon cycles. He was probably the healthiest person in the school, the kids included.

Keith Jefferson was an interesting teacher himself. A heavy-set young black, student teacher who grew up in the Ghettos of St. Louis. He quickly became the most popular adult as viewed by our class. He could talk the talk of the tough neighborhoods without faking it. But he also seemed to have a natural affinity for the older kids. Most of the other teachers with the exception of Mrs. Kane seemed as though they would prefer to be dealing with much younger kids. He was a good musician and excelled in drama, with his booming voice and impressive stage presence.

When the Eighth Grade was expected to present a class play. It was Keith who adapted a version of Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By” for our class. I vaguely remember it had something to do with Russian peasants facing difficult situations. Jim played a lead role and Marilyn must have had the female lead but I can’t recall much about the details. I think I was part of the chorus playing a recorder without a speaking part. The few words I remember were some references to Kopeks and one peasant giving another a dram of vodka to help him stay warm.

For all my new experiences in the Eighth Grade, my most vivid memories come from my own personal growing pains associated with that year. It seemed when I first arrived in class, Marilyn had taken a very immediate and keen interest in me. According to her I was very “cute”. When I look back at the few pictures I have of myself at that time, I was cute; in a leprechaunish sort of way.

Early that school year we played a game which I had never played before or since. One kid was supposed to start running from one end of the field and the other kids were supposed to grab them along the way to stop them. Not so much as tackling as grabbing and holding. I had a kind of glorious moment during this game. Matt, the huge 8th grader who was about half again my size came at me and grabbed me around the waist. Somehow with my momentum and balance I spun him around and ended up throwing him off. But overshadowing that moment for me was when Marilyn grabbed me and held on and I carried her for a good distance on my back until another kid stopped me. The sense of physicality of a girl was an exciting feeling. And her excitement about it only added to it. She came up with a nickname for me that year it was “Cagey” based on my initials.

For our year end camping trip, we all took a bus to a group-campground near Mt. Tamalpais. And during the trip there, Marilyn made clear she wanted to experience something physical with me. She showed me pictures of a couple making out in a book and said this is what she wanted to do. We held hands as we walked down a path to the campground. She said that her brother gave her some advice about camping that was “don’t eat yellow snow”.

After setting up camp for the night there seemed to be a lot of chaotic movement. Marilyn and Fran had set up their tents in a tree-sheltered area, away from the larger group. There were some attempts at playing spin-the-bottle, but it did not go well for me. Jim got to kiss Marilyn and Todd got to kiss Fran. When I spun the bottle it pointed at Louisa. I had planned on kissing Marilyn and I didn’t want to deal with all these other kids, so I begged off. Somehow in the chaos Marilyn and Jim, and Fran and Todd paired off. The rest of us left them alone, me feeling a sense of failure, more than betrayal.

Looking back I can see we were all just barely teenagers and it was really about experimentation and I don’t know if I was ready for what Marilyn was looking for. I had imagined kissing and touching. But that is hindsight, maybe Marilyn had wanted something more than that. In the moment I only felt confused and vaguely miserable.

In the morning a group of us went down to Marilyn and Frans’ tent. They were both rather somber and quiet, giving the impression they wanted to be left alone. Also giving the impression that something very heavy had transpired that night. Todd and Jim on the other hand were very talkative and wanted tell all about their time with Fran and Marilyn. We hiked to the top of Mt. Tamalpais that day and group of us boys gathered at a resting point and Kevin held court, talking all about it. It was as though they were giving the rest of us boys some advice about sex, as though they were grown men who knew all the ropes.

It wasn’t clear to me exactly what had transpired between those four that night, who wanted what, and who regretted what. But Todd and Jim seemed to have no regrets. While Marilyn and Fran seemed less happy about it. What had seemed like a very promising camping trip had turned out very poorly for me. And the sense of social failure it left me with, set the tone for the rest of my years at Waldorf.

Whenever I smell that Cutter liquid mosquito repellent which Marilyn and Fran used. I still get short vignettes of that camping trip. Anne with her arms crossed uncomfortably, Dave walking around with a metal bar as a kind of imaginary weapon, Marilyn’s rotund mother laughing heartily as she fixed us all a meal, Kevin and Pat talking about the movie “Tommy” and everyone listening intently, the smell of pot in the air, clinging to the kids coats, Mr. Schmidt sitting back in his folding chair, a little too relaxed and a little buzzed from a couple beers, the baseball Marilyn found in the campground and gave to me, suggesting I should get it signed by my classmates on the trip; but Joel ending up with the baseball because he wanted it and I didn’t play baseball and I was such a nice guy. The Elton John version of “Pinball Wizard” (not the much cooler “Who” version) with the zen-like line “that deaf dumb and blind kid sure plays mean pinball” (the kid is a zen-master isn’t he?) always brings me back to that campground near Mt. Tam.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *